Across the country, prospective and current college students are anticipating a fall semester unlike any in living memory. Some are unsure whether they even should continue pursuing a college degree. In June, Fitch Ratings estimated that colleges and universities would see a drop in annual enrollment of 5-20%.

One option being considered by students is a temporary withdrawal from school for a “gap year” motivated by health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic or simply wishing for a more conventional freshman experience. Forbes writer Chelsey Zhu notes that some students are even considering a “virtual” gap year, skipping school to stay at home and participate in some other kind of remote activity.

For some students, part of the calculation is the possibility of missing out on a semester or more of traditional face-to-face, personalized classroom instruction. My opinion: this is a bad reason for taking a gap year.

I grant that in-person instruction in a university setting is immensely valuable and desirable, but a gap year is costly and online learning can be effective.

Historically, a key reason many students take a gap year is to acquire the associated life experiences and maturity that will make the following years of undergraduate study richer and more valuable. A virtual gap year to simply wait out the pandemic doesn’t bring any of these benefits.  Further, regardless of motivation and format, a gap year comes with substantial costs.

First, there are food and housing costs whether an individual is in school or not. But more significant is the cost of entering the workforce a year later. The average starting salary for recent college graduates is about $50,000. Not only is this income lost, but the opportunity for investing it is lost as well. The question you should be asking is not whether face-to-face instruction is more valuable than online instruction (and the scholarly evidence on this point is equivocal — see below), but whether it’s worth an extra $50,000. I believe, in all but the rarest cases, it won’t be.

If one does decide to take a gap year, there are things that can be done to reduce the economic cost. One option is to get a job. Netting $20,000 reduces the lost income to $30,000. Another option is to take just one online class per semester (fall, spring, and summer), totally feasible in evenings and weekends even if one is engaged in another full-time pursuit. This would allow a student to earn enough credit to potentially graduate college and enter the workforce six months sooner, reducing the eventual economic cost by half.  

Students who are medically at-risk and are concerned about returning to the classroom environment during the pandemic should remember that colleges and universities are still compelled (by section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act) to provide necessary accommodations for students with disabilities. Students not satisfied with their university’s accommodation or who just want to avoid potential problems could enroll exclusively in online courses either through their preferred college or university or another one, providing the credits would transfer.

Whether online learning is inferior to traditional classroom learning is an empirical question. The hypothesis is not well supported. One study examined grade-based learning outcomes in similar online versus face-to-face courses and found a difference of less than 0.07 grade-point-average points on a four-point scale. That’s a minuscule difference. Another study looked at learner satisfaction and outcomes in online versus in-person courses. In the second case, researchers found that although students in the face-to-face course perceived the instructor and quality of the course slightly more positively there was no difference in learning outcomes. From decades of experience, it has become clear that online learning can enable students to achieve learning outcomes equivalent to those of face-to-face learning. 

Admittedly, Emergency Remote Teaching is not the same as traditional online instruction. But, I expect, having had a summer to prepare, it will be close. Optimal online learning outcomes result from situations where the instructor has adequate time and support for carefully designing instruction, expectations, assessments, student-teacher and student-student interaction, and pacing. When COVID-19 forced colleges and universities to move instruction online last spring, most instructors had only days to transition. While it is tempting to evaluate the unplanned online instruction of last spring’s semester with the usual rubric, it is not a fair comparison. It is reasonable for concerned students to expect that online learning this fall will be of higher quality than the emergency remote teaching of last spring.

To be clear, my position is not that no one should ever take a gap year. Depending on your individual situation and the opportunity, the gap year experience may very well be worth the $50,000 in foregone income (plus the cost of the experience itself). That is a personal value that must be individually considered. Rather, my position is that one should not take a gap year because of the possibility that the pandemic will cause universities to move to online instruction.

Indeed, if you’re a student who was previously planning to take a gap year, but you have had your plans canceled due to the coronavirus, you should look into the possibility of enrolling in online courses. Take a raincheck on your original plans, perhaps plan a year off sometime in the future, and use the time you’ve gained to study. A college education is almost always a good value.